3 Simple First Steps for Overhauling Your Productivity System

Everyone has a system for getting things done. Unfortunately, for many, that system is in their head, post-it notes scattered around, or their email inbox. I can’t speak for everyone but my guess is that if this is your system then things you need to get done are either all happening at the last minute as something triggers you to remember or they are falling through the cracks. This is no way to live!

If you are wanting to overhaul your productivity system you can take some simple steps to make life much easier. I could tell you that you need to read Getting Things Done, purchase the best task manager, and sit for hours recalibrating everything in your life. Yes, this would work but for most people this is overkill when you are just starting. The best productivity system is the one that works for you. The trick is to find that balance of the simplest method for keeping track of everything without being unnecessarily complicated or burdensome. Being a productive and efficient person should give you clarity and time for the most important things in your life. Productivity is not about (necessarily) getting more accomplished but organizing your life in such a way that you have a good balance for everything.

I love these two quotes from Tim Challie’s book Do More Better (you can find my review here):

  • “Productivity is not what will bring purpose to your life, but what will enable you to excel in living out your existing purpose.”
  • “I don’t want you to do more stuff or take on more projects or complete more tasks. Not necessarily. I don’t want you to work longer hours or spend less time with your family and friends. I want you to do more good. I want you to do more of what matters most, and I want you to do it better. That’s what I want for myself as well.”

Below, I outline three first steps that you can take to help your productivity system. These are just initials actions that you can do in order to boost your productivity and free your mind for engaging in the most important aspects of your life.

3 First Steps

Perform a mind dump - this idea comes from the GTD system. At the most basic level the idea is to get everything off your mind. One of David Allen’s most popular quotes is “Your mind is not for keeping ideas but for having them.” If you are storing everything you have to do in your mind then you are not free to think through the most important ideas in your life. The only way to remember that you have to do something at the end of the week is to keep reminding yourself of that task. That’s just one task. Now think of everything you have to do and you can quickly see that this can become overwhelming.

So, my first suggestion, is to think of different areas of responsibility in your life. For me, this falls into 3 broad categories: personal (family, home, church, dog, etc), work, and school. Gather three pieces of paper and 15, 30, 60 minutes to sit down and just write down anything that comes to mind that you have to do in those areas of responsibility. I think you’ll be surprised about how much you are actually storing in your mind.

Just this simple process of performing a mind dump will give you clarity about what all you have going on in your life. Once you have done this, develop a plan with your most important tasks. If there are events you need to go to or prepare for then put them on the calendar. For projects, write down the next action that you need to do in order to move the project forward. Many tasks can be deferred until later. Keep a list of these on a separate sheet of paper that you can review at a later date.

This is just a first step in order to help you realize what all you have going on and to clear your mind. Unfortunately, this is not a one-time deal. I try to perform a mind dump every month or so because inevitably I forget to write things down. The next step, will outline what to do moving forward so you don’t develop a habit of constantly trying to remember things.

Create an inbox for your tasks - whenever something comes up that you need to do then you need to write this down in a consistent location. A dedicated task manager is best for this in my opinion (I recommend OmniFocus, Things, or Todoist) but getting started you can use anything such as the Notes app on your iPhone, Evernote, or even just go old fashioned and use a pocket notebook such as Field Notes or a memo pad.

You don’t want to just keep these tasks in your inbox though. You consistently need to clear this inbox and put the tasks in the right place. If it is a larger project then open a file or a separate note for the project and write down some next actions (Evernote allows you to set reminders for notes). For simple tasks put them in a reminders app such as Reminders or the Due app (this is what I use). For time sensitive material such as events use your calendar. By using an inbox it will give you one central location to review new tasks and deal with those appropriately.

The key is not to try to remember everything. This is not how your brain is designed to work! We are naturally forgetful. Don’t keep tasks in your email, brain, or post-it notes scattered around. One location will help you track everything you have going on in your life.

Review - finally, I recommend that you review your tasks on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Personally, I do a Friday weekly review (see my post on this here) but you can do this anytime that works best for you. By reviewing your tasks and projects you will be able to see what is coming up and plan accordingly. The review does not need to be complex but you do need to take a 20,000 ft. view of your life and see what all is going on.

Conclusion

So if you are feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of tasks that you have to do I recommend starting with these three steps. In further posts I will talk about a more complete system but these three things will help you get started in creating your own system. Everyone’s system will be different but I think there are certain pillars that will improve everyone’s productivity.

If you are interested in more then I suggest looking at David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. Much of my productivity system is based on principles that he outlines in this book. As I said above though, I don’t follow it completely but it gives me a better vision of how I work and how I can track everything going on. The key is to develop a system for you and stick to it. You will have ups and downs. You will need to reset, perform the mind dump, and recalibrate what you are doing. At the end of the day, make your system work for you and you not working for your system. It should always work in the background helping you focus on the task at hand.